Free Speech and the Regressive Left — the Road Back to Reason

Free Speech and the Regressive Left — the Road Back to Reason

Jeffrey Tayler
Jeffrey Tayler
10 min read

What’s a peeved leftist to do when ill-considered aspects of his creed so undermine his candidate’s credibility that the candidate loses the most consequential presidential election in history? Why, vent his frustration on those of his fellows who tried to set him straight!

With the recent inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, progressives need to pause, take a deep breath, assess the peril facing the republic — indeed, the West as a whole, even the planet — and find a basis for common ground that will permit the formation of an effective opposition. We should recall that the White House is now more powerful than ever; Obama signed almost as many executive orders (279) as his predecessor (291). Executive overreach, pursued by presidents of both parties, seeks to thwart the constitutional checks and balances that prevent rule by fiat and, thus, the potential for tyranny. With Trump, the danger is especially acute and grows more apparent by the hour.

Now is not the time for those on the left, however upset they may be, to vent and rage. It is a time for sobriety, and, most of all, a return to rational discourse that aims to arrive at a new, sound progressive consensus. This applies especially to those in the “atheist community” — people who should know better, given that they purport to espouse an evidence-based worldview. Nonbelievers should remember that the freedom to express safely what for centuries were (and still are, in many mostly Muslim-majority countries) considered heretical opinions punishable by imprisonment or death springs from the Enlightenment’s finest fruit: liberal (secular) governance. The bedrock of liberal governance is freedom of speech. Attempting to suppress free speech can have dire and sometimes unpredictable consequences.

Exempli gratia horribilis: Trump in the Oval Office. There’s good reason to believe that the prevailing regressive leftist penchant for branding as racist or “Islamophobic” those who speak frankly about Islam and terrorism has gifted us with the Trump regime. I recently explained how here in Quillette, but to summarize: Hillary Clinton’s dogged refusal to link Islam to the ongoing wave of terrorist violence gave Trump an opening he easily exploited. It doesn’t matter that in the United States terrorist attacks have been relatively few (compared to Europe): eight out of ten registered American voters considered terrorism “very important” (slightly behind the economy) in deciding whom to vote for. Since divisions between the two candidates regarding the economy were not so salient, and since Clinton shillyshallied away from honest talk about Islam while Trump relentlessly pilloried her for this, we can deduce that how she spoke — or didn’t speak — about Islamist terrorism may well have cost her the election.

Now to the subject of today’s column — How Classical Liberals Helped Normalize White Nationalism and Elect Donald Trump, an essay by Dan Arel. (If you need to, check out the definition of classical liberalism here.) Arel, the author of an important, timely book, Parenting Without God, published the above mentioned piece in the multi-faith online journal Patheos, where he is a prominent blogger.

I confess to shock after I read it and noted that Arel was the author; some of his past work I had admired. Arel’s essay is more ranted than reasoned, a mishmash of unsubstantiated, hyperbolic, mostly question-begging assertions lacking coherency and in places scarcely intelligible. One might attribute the piece to Arel’s bereavement over Trump’s win and so be inclined to ignore it, but the charges he levels are serious, indicative of the mainstream left’s failure to understand and react rationally to its loss in November. Such charges demand rebuttal.

So I’ll rebut.

Arel starts off by telling us that “alt-right white nationalists have seemingly infected every fabric of American culture, no [sic] thanks in part to the media insistence on normalizing such a movement.” (Presumably he meant “thanks in part;” similarly careless locutions crop up throughout the piece.) Thus “infected” by the alt-right, “many of the loudest voices” of the atheist community “have fought to not only normalize but also help amplify the voices of white nationalism.”

This is a grave, sweeping accusation one waits in vain to see justified in the coming paragraphs. It concludes the introduction, which is printed under a photo of Dave Rubin, formerly a comedian and now a political commentator, and captioned as “the not so liberal . . . host of the Rubin Report.” (The Rubin Report is a popular classical liberal internet talk show.) After chastising Rubin for inviting on air Breitbart’s commentator Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos, its most notorious provocateur, and not grilling them sufficiently for his tastes, Arel accuses Rubin of “look[ing] for points of agreement and form[ing] bonds” with the two right-wing figures. The result: “The alt-right . . . enjoys Rubin’s large audience to spread their message of hate.” Arel then announces that, “Rubin has stated his choice of guests help him push his own agenda, so if one is confused as to why he brings on such voices, it’s because Rubin himself is pushing this same agenda.”

Well, Rubin, who does aim to “build bridges” to repair our dysfunctional political discourse, has already stated his “agenda” (which, need it be said, is not that of the alt-right). But more germane to Arel’s jeremiad is the video message below, in which Rubin takes on the left, free speech, Islam, trigger warnings, and more —

In any case, two Breitbart guests do not evidence of an alt-right agenda make. But most significantly for Arel, Rubin “goes so far as to blame the left for the election of Donald Trump, accusing the politically correct culture of rallying the right around Trump’s message.” How? By handing —

[A] megaphone to many of Trump’s loudest supporters, giving rise and credibility to their ideas, empowering the white nationalist movement and bringing them to new audiences. It’s not the left that helped elect Trump, it was racism, sexism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and those who helped raise those voices above the rest.

Where are the data supporting these claims? Arel provides none. Steve Bannon may be in the White House, and white identity politics certainly figured more prominently than ever in the recent presidential campaign, but do polls show an actual empowerment of white nationalism among Americans as a whole? No, studies do not demonstrate any such “empowerment.” Did the “racist” and “sexist” vote account for Trump’s win? Well, hundreds of counties that twice turned out for Obama ended up supporting Trump. Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump. In any case, are leftists really so gullible that watching a couple of interviews on Youtube will unmoor them ideologically? Otherwise, as I’ve already pointed out, polling does indicate that the “politically correct culture” obscuring the relation between Islam and terrorism did in fact help bring Trump to power. And lest we forget, Trump, with his twenty-two million Twitter followers and nonstop mass media coverage, needed no help from Rubin to spread his message.

What Arel is essentially doing here is militating against the dissemination of unpopular speech, for fear that it will win over a childlike public. He thereby contradicts John Stuart Mill, who saw not harm in exposure to contrary opinions, but benefit. In his landmark essay On Liberty, Mills held that —

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

One might by now suspect that Arel believes hearing dissent is harmful and, thus, that he supports the vile “de-platforming” phenomenon sweeping university campuses today, as well as trigger warnings and safe spaces. And one would be correct. Arel next sets his sights on an outspoken opponent of all such hysterical puerility, the eminent evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. Coyne runs a respected science and secularist web site, Why Evolution is True, and is the author of the canonical “New Atheist” tome, Faith vs. Fact.

How did Coyne (who has consistently denounced Trump) run afoul of Arel and land on his alt-right roster of shame? Well, Arel notes that students at the University of Colorado were “gathering signatures” to urge the de-platforming of Milo Yiannopoulos, who, at the invitation of College Republicans and Turning Point USA, was scheduled to speak there. On his web site, Coyne protested, but with a proviso:

I’ve said previously that, in light of Yiannopoulos’s unconscionable [verbal] attack on a transgender student in Wisconsin, he should be allowed to speak on campuses with the proviso that he be told to refrain from singling out and attacking individuals students from his bully pulpit. (There may be exceptions if those students are seen as public figures.)

The University of Colorado refused to cave in to the students, declaring something that should go without question on campuses everywhere: “we must support the free exchange of ideas.”

Coyne recounts the pathetic history of this episode of de-platforming manqué, which originated with a graduate student’s complaint that it is “the university’s responsibility to defend its students from being literally attacked, and physical harm isn’t the only kind of harm out there. The university ought to be a safe space to learn and be who you are without fear of reprisal.” (Italics mine.)

In any case, Arel decided that if “Yiannopoulos has a right to his hate speech . . . he does not have a right to a university stage, and the school has a responsibility to protect its students . . . . Coyne and others on his side are only giving [sic] to voices like Yiannopoulos’ and doing nothing to defend the people being harassed.”

Again, Coyne specifically included a proviso against personal attacks (that is, harassment). Arel, however, reports that “Coyne was satisfied with Yiannopoulos merely agreeing to not mock students again and not actually paying a price for his actions. Yet those students who feared the damage Yiannopoulos to other students was [sic] brushed off by Coyne as regressive and anti-free speech. This view is hypocritical.”

Arel’s link in the penultimate line takes readers to a previous blog entry in which he chastises Coyne for defending Yiannopoulos’ right to freedom of speech, which the university would have violated by disinviting him. De-platforming an already scheduled speaker for his controversial opinions amounts to nothing if not an impingement on freedom of speech. Hence Coyne, whom Arel cites, reasonably concludes that “these Illiberal Leftists . . . have no idea what freedom of speech is really about.”

Arel then (inexplicably) refers to Coyne (and Rubin) as “community appointed leaders” who “break from the right” on a number of issues —

[Y]et the [sic] join the right in fighting against feminism, progressive social justice, and go as far as to mock gender-studies. Instead of embracing the political left [and] social justice, Rubin, Coyne, and the like, lambaste the left as extremists, while aligning closely with white nationalism.

Arel fails to offer any substantiation — nary a link nor a quote — for these allegations, the last of which boils down to an accusation of racism. But no fair examination of their written or spoken records could justify them. In any case, as Christopher Hitchens stated, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” So I’ll avail myself of Hitchensian license and dismiss this groundless stab at character assassination.

Yet Arel, we should hardly be surprised by now, proceeds to follow his thread of fanciful illogic deeper and deeper into the Daedalian labyrinth of poppycock he’s constructing, hot on the trail of his chimerical crypto-fascist Minotaur. For him, Rubin and Coyne “give voice to the worst humanity has to offer and work to silence and shame those who stand up against such bigotry. This is because they accuse the entire left of being ‘regressive.’”

Yes, “The worst humanity to offer.” I’ll again avail myself of Hitchensian license, except to say that they accuse only hypocritical lefty poseurs of being regressive, not “the entire left.”

Arel then offers a review of the term “regressive left,” which, for him, Rubin and Coyne use to cover the sinister alt-right ideology he has uncovered in their work. Briefly, Arel contends they deploy the label as “a pejorative, much of the way [sic] this same group uses SJW to dismiss the concerns of social justice advocates.” Following this comes a series of disjointed paragraphs that merit yet another Hitchensian dismissal.

On second thought, though, a sample. Coyne and Rubin, per Arel, “welcome white nationalist speakers on campus and complain if students try and stop it, telling them to protest instead, and in turn, complain when they turn out in protest, accusing them of trying to live in a bubble and being an enemy of the free exchange of ideas.” Earlier in his piece, Arel had claimed that they “strawman the very idea of ‘safe spaces’ claiming its leftist liberals begging to be coddled in school, refusing or caring not to listen that these are nothing but the same ‘spaces’ we see in Alcoholics Anonymous, or even at private atheist meetings or gatherings.”

So, are we to see college students as the equivalents of traumatized substance abusers? That’s what Arel gives us to think. True, though, post-pubescent toddlers throwing tantrums on campus when they find themselves confronting differing opinions do cry out for diagnosis (and possibly medication). But the world is an increasingly dangerous place. If said toddlers lack what it takes to get through four years in such cossetted environs, how will they face tough, determined Islamists on either the ideological or the literal battlefield? In any case, Arel might have offered links to samples of what Rubin and Coyne have said about safe spaces and trigger warnings. But stream-of-consciousness editorializing is more easily accomplished unrestrained by facts, to say nothing of respect for the truth.

Next ensues a slipshod harangue that, as far as I can tell, casts Coyne and Rubin and other sane progressives as dastardly villains scheming to undo decades of egalitarian social advancement, destroy the American Way, and establish a sort of Yankee Third Reich, with Hillary’s “deplorables” press-ganged into serving as twenty-first-century Brownshirts. Little of this lends itself to rational rebuttal, but in essence, Arel contends that decriers of the regressive left “got into bed with the wrong crowd and moved into the far-right landscape because of a failure to evaluate Islam at the same critical level they do all other religion,” which is, he says, “a sin both the left and right share.”

If we translate this into standard American English, we get — mirabile dictu! — the point that sane progressives (including Rubin and Coyne, and Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) have been making all along: that the left’s exculpatory doubletalk about Islam has, broadly speaking, split the movement into genuine progressives and regressive leftists. Or at least that’s how I interpret Arel’s tortured verbiage. With his concluding line he lapses into self-parody: “If atheism is to continue forward progress in the US, it must be a voice of reason, not a megaphone for racist white nationalism.”

Nonbelief as a “voice?” As a “megaphone?” There is neither a valid metaphor nor a truthful assertion lurking in his peroration’s final line.

Since Arel expends 1,400 words attacking Rubin, Coyne, et al, but offers no credible evidence against them, we might, once again, just cite Hitchensian license and punch the delete key on the entire screed.

I fully sympathize with those who are outraged over Trump’s win, but I wonder if, in Arel’s case, a sense of culpability for this national disaster doesn’t fuel the petulant ire on display in his blog entry. A larger point transpires, though, about members of the regressive left: they stand in need of a patient reeducation in the value of free speech and other ideals of the Enlightenment. A unified progressive opposition to Trump can come about only via a return to true progressive principles. Unfettered free speech and criticism are the tools we need to achieve this.

Reading John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty would be a good way to start.

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Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyTayler1.